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Case Basics
Docket No. 
No. 87-1639
No. 87-1668
(Argued the cause for the United States)
(Argued the cause for the petitioners in the Martin case)
(Argued the cause for the respondents Wilks et al)
(Argued the cause for the petitioners in the Personnel Board and Arrington cases)
Facts of the Case 

As a result of a lawsuit in 1974, the Jefferson County Personnel Board in Birmingham, Alabama, entered into consent decrees that included hiring blacks as firefighters and for promoting them. The decrees were approved by a federal district court. Years later, Robert K. Wilks, a white firefighter, challenged the decrees and alleged that whites were being denied promotions in favor of less qualified blacks. Wilks argued that such practices violated Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The personnel board agreed that it was making race-conscious decisions but argued it was doing so pursuant to the original decrees. The Court combined arguments in two companion cases: Personnel Board v. Wilks and Arrington v. Wilks.


Did Wilks and other white firefighters have a constitutional right to challenge the previously established decrees?

Decision: 5 votes for Wilks, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, including Appellate Procedure (or relevant rules of a circuit court)

Yes. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that because "a person cannot be deprived of his legal rights in a proceeding to which he is not a party," the white firefighters were not precluded from challenging employment decisions taken pursuant to the consent decrees. The Court argued that "[t]he parties to a lawsuit presumably know better than anyone else the nature and scope of relief sought in the action" and that they were better suited to intervene when their rights were immediately threatened. Conversely, the Court noted that "[n]o one can seriously contend that an employer might successfully defend against a Title VII claim by one group of employees on the ground that its actions were required by an earlier decree entered in a suit brought against it by another, if the later group did not have adequate notice or knowledge of the earlier suit."

Cite this Page
MARTIN v. WILKS. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 26 August 2015. <>.
MARTIN v. WILKS, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 26, 2015).
"MARTIN v. WILKS," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 26, 2015,